Composer Alexandre Desplat Breaks Down The Score Of ‘Pinocchio’ & Finding “Moments Of Joy And Happiness” Amidst Grief

It’s impossible to talk about Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio without considering the music. Del Toro’s Netflix adaptation of the Carlo Collodi story takes place in 1930s Italy, during the Fascist reign of Benito Mussolini. In this story, woodcarver Geppetto (David Bradley) loses his son Carlo in an aerial bombing and carves Pinocchio (Gregory Mann) from the tree at his son’s grave. Composer Alexandre Desplat, who worked with del Toro on The Shape of Water, was tasked with capturing the “joyous melancholy” of the wooden boy in music. To enhance the connection between the character of Pinocchio and the music, Desplat made the choice to only use wooden instruments in the score. Below, Desplat breaks down three key pieces of the score – “Carlo’s Theme,” “Going to Town” and “Saving Geppetto” – with the corresponding scenes included for reference.

“Carlo’s Theme” was the first piece of the score that Desplat wrote. “It was crucial for me to find that theme before the melody, before I could develop and find other ideas,” he says. The theme, which reprises throughout the score, is important to achieve the “joyous melancholy” that Desplat and del Toro wanted for the story. “The loss of a child is something absolutely tragic and difficult to overcome,” he says, “but when you remember the child, you remember good moments, beautiful moments of joy and happiness, not just the grief.” For this scene in the film, “Carlo’s Theme” comes back to mark another instance of Geppetto dealing with the loss of his son. When Desplat first wrote the piece, he intended for it to underscore Pinocchio as well as Carlo. “Pinocchio is the creature created to give birth to Carlo again,” he says. “‘Carlo’s Theme’ is actually Pinocchio’s theme.”

Desplat decided to start with something reminiscent of a children’s lullaby, but give it a more sophisticated chord progression. “It’s between a lullaby and a love song,” he says, which gives it a nostalgic feeling as the theme both celebrates the life and mourns the loss of Carlo. Desplat played the song for del Toro on the piano at first, then began to incorporate more instruments. “The strings come in slowly with the harp and then the woodwinds join with the flutes and the clarinet,” he says. “Little by little, it expands the sound, but never too much. I didn’t want to sound bombastic because it had to stay constrained to the frame of the film.”

“Going to Town” is a more adventurous and playful part of the score, as Pinocchio leaves home to accompany Geppetto to town. “Pinocchio is a free spirit,” says Desplat, “he’s not innocent because he likes to do things that maybe don’t sound innocent, but he is a free spirit.” The theme changes as Pinocchio sees the poster for Volpe’s circus, but changes once more as Pinocchio is called back by his father. “Anything is an adventure for Pinocchio,” he says. “He’s happy to do anything that brings him out in the world and opens him up to discover what is out there.”

Desplat wrote the theme in a “question and answer” format, as a child questioning the world and receiving answers from their parent. “It’s a bit of continuity to the first song he sings, ‘Everything is New to Me’,” he says. As Geppetto says that they need to work, Pinocchio exclaims that he loves work, before asking what work is in a questioning tone of childlike wonder. “Everything is new to him in the workshop, but then everything is new to him outside the workshop… Going to town is like going around the world, it’s a real adventure.” The “question” is posed by the woodwinds and the “answer” comes from the strings, creating the upbeat rhythm of an inquisitive child experiencing the world for the first time.

“Saving Geppetto” begins with Pinocchio attempting to save Geppetto from drowning. “Pinocchio has been wounded, he has only one arm left, and he’s desperately trying to swim down to help Geppetto,” says Desplat. “It’s at the same time grotesque and very, very moving because you care for this little boy trying desperately to save his papa.” Though the scene is dire, the music instead focuses on a sense of hope for Pinocchio to save his papa. “The music is trying to help Pinocchio by giving him hope that he’ll be able to bring him back to life. It’s a very moving moment.”

Desplat begins the piece with “swirling, descending arpeggios” to simulate Geppetto spiraling down into the sea, using the piano to match the downward force. “The full orchestra is here, but it’s playing a motif from the first song we hear in the film, ‘My Son,’ that Geppetto sings to Carlo,” he says. In connecting this scene back to the beginning of the film, Desplat now uses the whole orchestra to strengthen the melody and allow the string instruments to give an impact to Pinocchio’s determination. “I knew quite early on that we would use the melody of ‘My Son’,” he says, “but we made a variation where the melody swells up and down again… So, it’s quite haunting and emotional.”

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